U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Gossip and Other Forms of Informal Academic Speech Online

Last week, the online magazine of cultural criticism Avidly, which has recently joined the L.A. Review of Books’ “LARB Channels” project, celebrated its second birthday by publishing a series of essays on a topic that is a perennial one on this blog: public intellectuals.

I was particularly struck by Lili Loofbourow’s contribution to this series. You may well know Loofbourow’s work. She writes frequently on television for the L.A. Review of Books (and about many other things for The New Inquiry, Boston Review, and The Awl), blogs at Excremental Virtue, and is also pursuing a PhD in English literature from U.C. Berkeley. She is, in short, someone who operates on both sides of the academic / public-intellectual divide.

I agree wholeheartedly with the main argument of Loofbourow’s Avidly piece, which is a plea for more informal academic discussion among humanists online. But I was – and am – puzzled by her decision to label such informal discussion “gossip.”

Loofbourow’s piece starts with her describing her experience upon reading a very negative review of a book by a friend. Loofbourow felt that the review was unfair and, since the reviewer and author were both prominent, decided to see whether there was any online discussion of the review. A Google search revealed none at all. Loofbourow found this surprising…and unfortunate.

I’ve written a fair bit in recent months about blogging as scholarship. But scholarship is by no means the only valuable function served by academic blogging. A lot of what goes on at a place like this blog – both in posts and, just as importantly, in comment threads – is a kind of informal academic exchange that is a vital part of being an historian…or any other kind of humanist.

Loofbourow’s plea to encourage, for example, the discussion of articles and reviews online is absolutely on the mark. Blogs and social media are a great place for this kind of exchange, which in the past has usually taken place in the most informal (and often invisible) of academic spaces: the faculty lounge, the bar, the dinner party, the convention hotel lobby, and so forth.

Having such discussions take place on line opens them up in all kinds of ways, both spatially and temporally. IRL, such discussions often take place in settings that are marked by academic hierarchies (faculty lounges being a prime example); the internet tends to run roughshod over such hierarchies in useful ways.

While Loofbourow thinks we don’t do much of this sort of thing online, in my experience we do a fair bit of it…though we could always do more.[1]

But while I’m entirely sympathetic with Loofbourow’s encouraging more informal academic exchange online, I was puzzled by her use of the word “gossip” to describe it. Her piece is entitled “High Stakes Criticism: the Case for Academic Gossip.” Here’s how she frames her case in her essay:

The absent of comment is shameful. There’s a popular misconception that gossip is harmful. It often is, but gossip is a complex thing: whatever harm it inflicts is a direct function of its main virtue. Gossip is a socializer, a community-builder, a way of establishing ethical, social and intellectual baselines. Its perniciousness-–which is real, and which I don’t mean to minimize—is a result of what gets excluded from that community-building: a fence will always have an outside. There are reasons to treat gossip with care: too often it reinforces extant power dynamics (the good old boys’ network is the gossipiest institution in history). And it often gets derailed by trivialities, mistaking the personal for the professional. We aren’t and shouldn’t be in the business of gossiping about how academics dress, or who’s sleeping with whom. (At least, not anymore than we already are.)

But why aren’t more of us gossiping about each other’s disciplinary interventions? I don’t mean hand-wringing over the state of the profession–we’re having that conversation everywhere, and it’s probably a good thing. I’m referring to the substance of what we do: I mean that article, this book. The internet offers anonymity, and it should be a hotbed of gossip: it should be where young scholars are talking with each other, thinking aloud about the critics we’re working with and against, and putting this lunatic enterprise into some kind of human perspective.

I don’t see how “gossip” is an accurate description of the kinds of informal discussions she wants. One of the defining aspects of gossip is that it concerns people not present for the discussion. If you ask an academic how she is doing and she says “I just got a job offer from Michigan!,” that’s not gossip (though when you repeat the news to others, it is). But if you ask an academic how she is doing and she says, “I can’t believe that my mediocre colleague just got a job offer from Michigan!,” that is gossip.

The internet does make anonymity easy (though in the context of academic discussions, anonymity can be a mixed blessing, I think). But the internet makes private conversation nearly impossible. Though there are certainly times when speakers engaged in the sort of conversations Loofbourow has in mind might want anonymity, the objects of such conversations – that article, this book – cannot be anonymized. Loofbourow wants to be able to locate these conversations with a simple Google search; the whole point of them is that they ought to be open and available to other interested academics. Of course this also means that such online conversation about that article or this book might be read by the authors of that article or this book, who might then intervene in the conversation. This is a good thing for these conversations, in my opinion. But it pretty definitively makes them something other than gossip.

In fact, I first found out about Loofbourow’s piece when Aaron Bady posted a link to it on Facebook. I commented on Bady’s thread that I agreed with Loofbourow about the desirability of informal online academic discussion, but that I thought “gossip” was a bizarre word for it. Almost immediately Loofbourow herself responded. On the internet, we are always potentially the media studies professor in the movie line in Annie Hall and Marshall McLuhan (or at least his living equivalent) might always appear at a moment’s notice. This makes informal conversations online very un-gossip-like. It also, incidentally, makes more conventional forms of gossip online – and especially on social media – a truly terrible idea. You’ve probably all figured this out already, but in case you haven’t: one should almost always resist the desire to complain about students, colleagues, and academic politics on, say, Facebook.

All of which is not to say that there’s not a place for gossip, for talking about people and their work behind their backs, in academic life. But the more traditional, oral forms of academic gossip are really to be preferred if gossip is what you’re aiming for. The greatest feature of online communication is its openness, which is a great thing for all kinds of informal academic discussions, but is terrible for gossip.

[1]I do wonder whether there might be some disciplinary difference between history and the literary fields in this regard.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great piece, Ben!
    I find it a little contradictory that Loofbourow anonymizes both the reviewer and the author reviewed whom she holds up as the impetus for this call for open discussion, and that she only names a reviewer/reviewee pair (at the end) when she can applaud the reviewer’s (admittedly harsh) dedication to higher ideals.

    To me, her essay is a version of the subtweet–her friends and colleagues almost certainly know the review to which she is referring–which strikes me as the very opposite of what she’s calling for: sure, it’s instantaneous, and potentially high stakes (in case the subtweeted recognizes him or herself), but it’s intimate and isolating, not public and inviting. The point, surely, is plausible deniability–“Oh, I wasn’t talking about you!”–which seems to me a terrible foundation for, as she says, “putting this lunatic enterprise [the humanities] into some kind of human perspective.” I feel that in some measure, her favoring of the term ‘gossip’ is a way of smuggling this cliquish behavior in under genuine public discussion and exchange.

    • Here I am, popping up again almost immediately, once again because Aaron Bady pointed out to me that Ben had something interesting to say. Andy, I wish your speculation was true, if only because it’d mean that the sense of community that to me feels lacking would be present. (I’m perfectly willing to accept that the problem I notice is specific to my field–many historians have said they don’t find this to be a problem.) The fact is, no one knows what I’m talking about because the bad review in question wasn’t discussed–not in real life, not online, not anywhere.

      A few people have objected to my unwillingness to name the author of the book and the reviewer. I didn’t name them for three reasons: the first is that the post would immediately derail into a discussion of that particular conflict, which wasn’t my object. The second is that the author of the book has a horror of publicity and avoids all online formats–it would be particularly cruel to make the that person the unwilling posterboy for my hunger for online exchange. The desire was mine, not his. The last and most important (from a selfish point of view) is that my point in narrating that episode was to describe my *own* socialization (or lack thereof) as a graduate student. Here was someone I knew and respected, reviewed badly, and I wanted to see how the academic community responded. They didn’t. Or at least not in ways that a graduate student new to this, and trying to find her way around an intellectual community that can sometimes feel opaque, could access.

      • Lili,
        Thank you for responding. I appreciate that you have your reasons for not revealing the name of the author or of the reviewer, but why not simply choose a different instance of this phenomenon? If, as you say, things like this–rancorous reviews passing without comment, or sharply worded articles drawing no responses–happen frequently, I don’t see why you couldn’t have chosen some other episode of this nature as the hook for your narrative of socialization into academic tight-lippedness?

  2. Hi Andy,

    At the risk of being redundant, I’ll rephrase reason 1 above: years of blogging have taught me that hooks are risky business. When you start with a particular instance, especially when addressing a professionally sensitive topic, people get bogged down in the minutiae of that instance. The argument isn’t about that specific case, it’s about a larger phenomenon. I’m all for a productive close reading when it’s functional and germane, but in this case starting with an example could only distract: when describing a vacuum in the discourse, of what use is it to name the two parties who *aren’t* being talked about? It would only lead to them being talked about, and they aren’t the point; the point is that there dozens of reviews that aren’t being discussed, dozens of articles published without a single acknowledgment online. It’s much more useful for my purposes to close with an example of what that discourse looks like when it *does* happen–cue Holger Syme.

    (I fear we’ve veered from Ben’s great post to a much less interesting discussion of my argumentative tactics and the merits of arguing inductively–and you’re of course free to disagree with my rhetorical decisions–but I hope that clarifies why the post is constructed as it is.)

  3. Lili,
    You’re right, I certainly don’t want to veer off from Ben’s great post, but I was actually trying to follow up on the important distinction he made (or at least that I read him as making) between gossip and informal discussion. To me, the operative part of that distinction is precisely that informal discussions keep open the ability of those outside the initial conversation to wander into it–including those whom the conversation is about. Gossip, on the other hand, is intended to keep the circle of interlocutors bounded by those in the know. I took Ben to be saying that the latter idea is not very sustainable on the internet, and can create really awkward situations–like the subtweet that gets decoded by the subtweet’s target.

    I understand fully that you wished to avoid having your post derailed by discussion of the specific instance you used, but to me, anonymity is not abstraction–it was a real case you used, not a hypothetical–and so your reader is inevitably going to wonder about who is behind the screen you’ve put up. I find that exclusionary, regardless of its intention.

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